1 December 2019
Being a Single Parent
And then I had children. And I took them shopping.
In the process, I discovered that no amount of experience – no amount of classroom teaching, babysitting, or continuous late nights – can ever prepare a person to parent a child, especially when the child is throwing a tantrum in a supermarket. Only becoming a parent and being relied on 24/7 can do that.
The same can be said for single parenthood. Unless a parent is truly alone and solely responsible for one or more children when they are living with them, no experience can come close to the reality that single parenthood presents, with its unique characteristics and challenges.
With 948,800 or 14% of Australian families being one parent families, and two thirds of this 14% with children living with them, single parenthood is a reality facing many families in Australia today. This is especially true for single mothers, who make up 83% of one parent families. With this number of one parent families, it’s likely that most people, especially other parents or grandparents, would know or encounter single parents in church, in the workplace, as parents of children in sporting teams and on the school playground.
When talking to single parents, what is clear is that their hopes for their children are no different from couple families. When Joanne’s husband died, leaving her a widow and a single parent to two children under five, what differed for her was the impact of her husband’s absence when she had to make decisions without having him as a sounding board, balancing the ‘good cop, bad cop’ between parents, and in the myriad of small and large tasks that need to be done around the house, and in meeting financial obligations.
But when reflecting on the greatest challenge posed by raising her boys alone, Joanne said, “I feel that all of our lives lack a certain richness that would have been there had I not been a single parent and my husband had still been here.” She explains that the characteristics that her children share with their father, such as a love of Classical music, are harder to nurture in his absence. As a result, she tries to give her boys male role models and other experiences, but finds they still miss out on some of the richness their dad would have offered.
For Charlotte, becoming single and facing significant financial hardship meant she had to leave Sydney in order to provide for her son. “Working three jobs trying to pay for day care, the rent, groceries, and countless other things as a single parent, was extremely challenging,” Charlotte said.
But the other unexpected challenge was trying to rent in Sydney. “I found a lot of discrimination in the rental market for the fear that I was a single parent and I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. Despite me holding good jobs, this was not convincing enough for the agents and owners. And if I did find a place eventually, I was told to leave as the owners wanted to sell, and so I never found stability for my son.”
Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, On Love in the Family, reflected on the significant challenges facing single parents and the need for the Church to respond with love and practical care.
“Whatever the cause, single parents must receive encouragement and support from other families in the Christian community, and from the parish’s pastoral outreach. Often these families endure other hardships, such as economic difficulties, uncertain employment prospects, problems with child support and lack of housing.” (para 252).
Joanne came to understand the vital part parishes can play in supporting single parents when, following the death of her husband, she was asked to be on the Pastoral Council. She couldn’t believe it.
She recalls, “I had a four-year-old, a two-year-old and my husband had just died, I thought ‘Are you kidding?’ They had a complete lack of understanding about what my family needed.” As Christians, and as Catholic parishes, “We need to get more in tune with that,” she said. “I don’t know how but I think that is vital. People want to belong. If you’re not supported in times of need by your community, you don’t feel like you belong.”
Gary, a single father of a primary school-aged daughter, is very involved in her life and is committed to raising her well. He lives with her part-time and loves the opportunity to spend quality father-daughter time and create memories and traditions together. Gary doesn’t have a great deal of support and often finds the demands of single parenting a balancing act.
“Unlike many men in a similar situation, I have not re-partnered so I don’t have a significant other that can take some of the workload away, as well as offer their experience,” Gary said. “And as I’m not from Sydney, I don’t have a great support network of friends here. Occasionally though, a friend or two have stepped in to help in extreme situations, which has been a blessing.”
Joanne believes it’s the act of simple service without being asked, that can make the most significant contribution to a single parent. She notes that while single parents are prone to being vulnerable, it doesn’t mean they are vulnerable all the time. And so, “It’s the help that people don’t necessarily ask you, a neighbour who used to mow my lawn, people who do odd jobs around the place because they can see that it needs to be done,” Joanne said.
“Through sport I’ve had a lot of help as a single mum. You’re a team mum and so obviously you’ve got duties to do and you expect to have them, but when you’ve got astute, intuitive managers who say, ‘you already do a great deal of things, I’m going to leave you off this time’, that is really helpful.”
“I honestly think parish needs to step in, the school did. But if those basic societal groups in our community are offering support then a single parent doesn’t have to ask for help,” Joanne said. “It’s about looking out for the stressors in all our families, but especially for those who are single parents. Simply observing the signs can make the difference. Do people look stressed? Have they stopped going to Mass? Are their kids missing school? Are their clothes too small?”
And maybe that’s the point. If our faith and other community groups – our parishes, schools and sporting associations, just to name a few – are mindful of keeping an eye out for those families who are struggling, together we can do as Jesus did and make a real difference in the lives of those marginalised by life’s circumstances, by reaching out to help others in times of particular stress and vulnerability, rather than leaving people to struggle alone.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2016. ‘ABS shows changes on International Families Day’. https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs%40.nsf/mediareleasesbyCatalogue/5E4BABA5BD22D73DCA2581210009D3D8
 Pope Francis. Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia – On Love in the Family. Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, 19 March, 2016.